Sunday, December 4, 2011

Watching Way Too Much TV: An American Horror Story

Over the past few days, I've had a nearly unprecedented amount of deadlineless time to read, write, and think, which has been really fantastic. Riding this new calm, I've also taken the opportunity (of course) to gulp down a new show, and I'll go ahead and say that everything you've heard about American Horror Story is true. The Ryan Murphy that birthed Nip/Tuck is back. Hallelujah. I've been itching to blog about Nip/Tuck for a while, and Ryan Murphy articulates similar thought patterns in both shows. Glee aside (sorry Glee fans), and despite his flair for absurdity/borderline homophobia, I really think Murphy is one of the most important (or at least interesting) writers on television.

As I prepare to think through the first couple episodes,  I suppose I'll start with a spoiler alert, though I'm having a hard time thinking about this show in spoiled/unspoiled terms. Sure, if you're a reader who hasn't seen it, I'm going to be forced to bring you up to speed. I'm not particularly worried about this, though, because American Horror Story doesn't strike me as a show that is particularly concerned with revelation. Unlike a lot of the other lame shows I watch (Lost, Heroes, Supernatural), the show's primary tension is not "what's going to happen?!?" Your viewing may even be enhanced by the knowledge that Adelaide (my favorite character) dies in the fourth episode, with no word yet on whether or not she is going to haunt the house.  Also, in the spirit of full disclosure, Jack Halberstam has me reconsidering the ways in which we extract/create meaning from cultural texts, but I'll set that aside for the moment.

American Horror Story follows the exploits of three family members who have just moved into one of LA's most haunted houses as they encounter a bizarre cast of characters, including a creepy maid (who is simultaneously dead, young, and old), a toddlers-and-tiaras-type next door neighbor, her daughter Adelaide, and a teenage sociopath named Tate. Five episodes into the series, and I'm not totally convinced I've met a single living character. Ghosts are everywhere in this fucking show and they are by far its least interesting feature. 

In trying to write this, I'm chasing all kinds of different intellectual threads. We might, for example, talk about Ryan Murphy's American Dream, the source material for his Horror Story. It's quite lovely (if unsatisfying tidy) that the terrifying American family, and not the terrifying American ghost, is what most haunts the audience. I would, at some point, like to think about the way in which several of the show's characters (mother, daughter, ghost-maid) are animated by horror. Fear alternately defeats and energizes the story's characters, and I wonder if these fears (the fear of adultery, the fear of being discovered as a liar, the fear of home invasion) make the family most legible as a unit. Do the characters make most sense as a family when they are scared, and what other kinds of legibility does fear enable?

Because I've just finished reading Robert McRuer's Crip Theory, and because she's awesome/terrifying, I want to start with Adelaide. Addie, who has Down's syndrome, is portrayed as a kind of oracle-figure insofar as she knows just about everything about the house and has befriended most of the ghosts. Physically disabled as she is, Addie provides an interesting figure through which to read the events of the show. More than anything, Addie longs to be a "pretty girl" (the vague irony being that almost all of the show's pretty girls die violent deaths). I wonder if we might read Addie as a surprisingly complex intersection of disability, desire, and violence (her abuse is also obliquely informed by her mother's sexuality). The fact that Addie is disabled enables certain kinds of previously inaccessible knowledge, so that even if Addie can't understand that it isn't ok to break into someone's house, she can understand that there are ghosts in the house when the family cannot. Addie's physical difference reorganizes her world and differently structures her capacity for knowledge. Addie's understanding of the house's secrets and, more importantly, her total lack of fear emerges through her disability. Given the fact that Addie occupies such a fascinating position within the show, what do we make of her sudden, unearned death (other than just being pissed about it)?

In closing, I'm sort of curious as to what it means to call something an American Horror Story. As I've said earlier, a simplistic reading of the show casts the nuclear family and accompanying American Dream as the real heart of the show's horror. The family's desperate desire to reassemble and insist on itself inspires terror that has nothing to do with ghosts, but I think this reading is sort of uninspired. Instead, I wonder what it means to think about ghosts (and their accompanying cultural baggage) in distinctly American terms. To my mind, telling a haunted house story indicates, on some level, a desire to claim that people matter (before and after she dies, the father's mistress insists over and over again that "she matters"). Ghost stories present the possibility that people can, for better and worse, impress themselves on a location. As unromantically as I can think it, ghost stories reflect a desire for permanence and a desperate need to matter. Is wanting to matter particularly American? Are the narratives which people attach being American all that different than a ghost hunt?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, American Horror Story is a ghost story that is most compelling when totally evacuated of the supernatural. It leaves me wondering (somewhat redundantly/obnoxiously) about the ways the living haunt one another, the stories we tell ourselves, and the way we impress ourselves upon locations and bodies. Welcome back, Ryan Murphy, and thanks for a TV show that is unafraid to be absolutely terrifying.

This got a little more scattered than I meant. In my defense, twenty-four hours ago, I hadn't seen a single episode of the show. And blogging means never having to say you're sorry. For the tl;dr among us, I offer this much smarter comic and this infinitely more funny other comic. And then I beg you to lengthen your attention spans. Have a good week, folks.

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